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Sotheby’s $47M Contemporary Sale Reflects ‘New Reality’

Signaling the drastic reduction in the size of the contemporary art market, Sotheby’s offered just 48 lots in its part-one evening sale on May 12, compared with 83 in May of last year and 63 last November.

NEW YORK—Signaling the drastic reduction in the size of the contemporary art market, Sotheby’s offered just 48 lots in its part-one evening sale on May 12, compared with 83 in May of last year and 63 last November. With fewer high-value lots on offer, the sale brought in a total of just $47 million against an estimate of $51.8 million/72.4 million. Sotheby’s two previous major contemporary sales, last May and November, brought in totals of $362 million and $125 million, respectively.

The sell-through rate for this sale, however, was 81 percent by lot, a vast improvement on last November’s 68 percent. Even so, the auction did not exactly hum. Although most lots had bidders prepared to wave their paddles, 41 percent of them sold at hammer prices below estimate. Estimates are, at the moment, the key to the future of the market, as auction houses attempt to gauge and respond to the fall in perceived demand.

For this sale Sotheby’s had consciously focused on classic, as opposed to cutting-edge, art—or, as Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary art, put it, “artists that have a very solid collecting background.” This focus, as well as the recalibration of estimates, was clearly demonstrated by the top lot, Jeff Koons’s Baroque Egg with Bow (Turquoise/Magenta), 1994–2008, which sold after minimal bidding to Larry Gagosian for $5.46 million, shy of the $6 million/8 million estimate. A year ago the work would have been estimated at double that, Meyer told reporters before the auction.

Consigned by hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, who acquired it in 2004 for a reported $3 million, the massive stainless steel ­re-creation of a foil-wrapped Easter egg had been offered by Gagosian at the gallery’s exhibition in Moscow last year for $15 million/20 million, but was not sold.

On the other hand, Martin Kippenberger’s self-portrait Untitled, 1988, went into the sale with a record-breaking estimate of $3.5 million/5 million. One of two works consigned by Greek collector Dakis Joannou, both of which were guaranteed with irrevocable bids, it sold with little competition to dealer Iwan Wirth, of Hauser &?Wirth, London, Zurich and New York, for a record $4.1 million. Joannou’s other consignment was Christopher Wool’s word painting Untitled (P105), 1989. The alkyd and acryclic on aluminum, which read ­COMEDIAN, was sold to a phone bidder, again with little competition, for a record $1.87 million (estimate: $1.5 million/2 million).

Three bidders, including Jose Mugrabi, vied for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Red Man One, 1982, before it sold for $3.5 million to a phone bidder reportedly buying on behalf of Russian collector Oleg Baibakov (estimate: $3 million/5 million). Baibakov’s daughter, the curator Maria Baiba­kova, has plans to mount a Basquiat exhibition in Moscow.

Early Calder Sparks Competitive Bidding

The heaviest bidding in the sale came for Ebony Sticks in Semi-Circle, 1934, a sculpture by the seemingly recession-proof Alexander Calder. No fewer than six bidders, including collector Eli Broad, went after the classic early work before it sold to a phone buyer for $3.5 million (estimate: $3 million/5 million).

All eyes were on the Warhol market as a bellwether of the contemporary market as a whole. Sotheby’s offered and sold five works, though the only one to exceed estimates was Kellogg’s Cornflakes [Los Angeles Type], 1970, which sold for $482,500 to a phone buyer against bidding from Mugrabi (estimate: $200,000/300,000). The work had fetched just $50,000 at Sotheby’s in New York ten years before.

Flowers, 1964, a 14-inch-square silkscreen-ink on canvas, almost identical to one that fetched $1.1 million (estimate: $300,000/400,000) at Sotheby’s in London in February of last year, sold for $410,500 (estimate: $400,000/600,000)—the estimate went up, but the price went down. The painting sold to dealer Tony Shafrazi, with Mugrabi the underbidder again. Mugrabi finally got his Warhol, though, with the large (more than 33 feet wide) painting Camouflage, 1986, which sold below the $1.8 million/2.5 million estimate for $1.7 million. A similar work had sold at Sotheby’s last November for $2.6 million on an estimate of $3 million/5 million—so both price and estimate were lower by about one-third.

In the absence of any Richard Prince “Nurse” paintings, there were two “Joke” paintings instead, each estimated at $600,000/800,000. Two of the last three joke paintings to be offered at auction had been bought in with higher estimates, so there was some anticipation in the air. The first, Can You Imagine, 1989, soared over the estimate to sell for $1.37 million, but the second, My Girlfriend, 2005, sold short of the estimate to Patricia Marshall, who advises the Jumex Collection, Mexico City, to bring in $662,500 with premium.

Works by the carefully selected younger artists who were sparingly featured in the sale performed well. Cecily Brown’s Girls Eating Birds, 2004, sold to Gagosian for $1.2 million on an estimate of $700,000/900,000; Dan Colen’s candle painting Untitled (Blow Me), 2005, sold to art adviser Mark Fletcher for a record $386,500 against an estimate of $100,000/150,000; and Juan Muñoz’s Two Seated Figures (Mouth), 1996, sold for a record $698,500 against an estimate of $400,000/600,000. This last was one of several works consigned by U.S. collector Marc Straus (see profile, ARTnews, November 1999).

Among the nine unsold works were an early Robert Rauschenberg silk-screen collage painting, Transom, 1963 (estimate: $4 million/6 million), and Robert Gober’s cast-wax sculpture Untitled, 1990 (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million). Sothe­by’s officials’ comments after the sale focused on the high sell-through rate and the house’s success in “recalibrating” to the expectations of buyers and sellers in the new market. “Sotheby’s delivered a sale with estimates adjusted to the new reality and the market responded with solid results,” Meyer said.

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